By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON, Sept 15 (Reuters) - U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh kept railroads and unions at the bargaining table for 20 hours, fueled by sandwiches and baked ziti, to clinch a make-or-break labor deal early Thursday.
With President Joe Biden insistent and the U.S. economy in the balance, there was no room for failure and no time for a traditional style of negotiations with rounds of document exchanges, he said in an interview.
"I wanted to get this deal done," said Walsh, a former Boston mayor who canceled a trip to Ireland and speech to Irish legislators to broker the talks.
After more than two years of negotiations, railroads and unions faced a 12:01 a.m. Friday deadline to reach a contract and avoid a rail shutdown. That would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion daily by stranding critical goods, closing factories and paralyzing industries and travelers.
The talks began in a conference room and ultimately ended up in Walsh's office for more than five hours in the wee hours.
The two sides were willing to compromise but had strong views, Walsh said. He wasn't sure they would reach a deal.
"The unions were very persistent on what they needed and the companies were very persistent in what they weren't going to give up on," Walsh said. "There were certain points where I said to everyone, 'Let's remember we are trying to get a contract and just continue to be back and forth.'"
When the parties arrived early Wednesday, they had outlines of a deal on work rules. "We were able to get that done pretty quickly," Walsh said.
Walsh fed the sides sandwiches and coffee for lunch Wednesday and then baked ziti from a local restaurant for dinner. "It wasn't fancy, but it was good," Walsh said. "During dinner there was a lot of negotiating going on, so people kind of ate as they had a moment."
The persistence paid off. After midnight, the sides came back to Walsh with a compromise on a thorny issue -- a union demand for significant changes to personal days for workers on non-fixed schedules.
The final hurdle was health care, and they ultimately agreed to maintain a cap on employee costs.
"I did not celebrate until I had initials on the document," Walsh said. He called White House National Economic Council director Brian Deese to give him the good news early Thursday morning.
Walsh said it was a good contract for both workers and employers. He urged both sides to begin the next contract talks earlier to avoid a repeat of the last-minute negotiations.
Biden met with government officials, railroad and union leaders at the White House after the deal was announced and paid tribute to Walsh "for his tireless round the clock work." (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)